Global Policy Forum

Civil Society is Leading the Way on Societal Reform. Let It.


By Geoff Mulgan

March 15, 2010

During this election year there has been more talk about civil society than I can ever remember. The main parties have competed with each other to prove their enthusiasm for social enterprises and cooperatives, citizen empowerment and community activism. Yet it's less than a year since Jeremy Paxman, on national television, expressed astonishment at the idea that an enterprise could be social. And within the public sector, there is often a weary cynicism that the rhetoric rarely adds up to much.

When the financial crisis hit 18 months ago, the view that civil society is bound to be marginal to the big issues looked accurate. As governments around the world rushed to prop up failing industries and banks, civil society was nowhere to be seen. But the three crises that have dominated the headlines over the last year suggest that we could be on the verge of a fundamental shift.

The financial crisis has opened up a debate about whether a resilient economy needs to include plenty of mutuals, cooperatives and social enterprises: after all, the privatised building societies effectively went bankrupt, while the ones that remained mutuals didn't.

Civil society played a major part in warning people about the ecological crisis, and pioneered new models of energy provision, managing food supplies and organising urban development long before the world leaders met at Copenhagen to discuss the threat of climate change.

Thirdly, the political crisis that has been slowly simmering around the expenses scandal is further confirmation that the traditional models of representative democracy are no longer adequate.

Over the last two years the Carnegie Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society has involved hundreds of participants from around the UK to look ahead at both threats and opportunities. We've looked at the vast range of activity underway from websites mobilising millions to respond to humanitarian disasters to small community centres, and how it could be strengthened, or blocked.

Despite the diverse backgrounds of the participants, from all parts of politics, business, faith, trade unions and the media as well as the voluntary sector, we found a remarkably broad consensus about what now needs to be done. At its heart is a belief that the time is ripe for a significant step up in the roles taken by civil society. It's already a major player - with income over £100 billion and assets in the region of £200 billion. Yet it's still largely excluded from the big decisions and funding flows.

In the report of the inquiry, published today, we recommend action on several fronts. One is to further open up public services to civil society. This has already happened in fields such as housing, care and health. Indeed the NHS contracts with over 30,000 charities and social enterprises, it has pioneered rules to allow staff to spin out into a new social venture, and it has opened up its commissioning. In the future it may be that some services such as libraries or parks will be better run by community owned organisations.

A second theme is the need to move beyond the focus on the social role of civil society to a bigger economic role. In the 19th Century building societies, cooperatives and mutuals provided a large proportion of financial services and retailing for poor communities. Now the time is right for another big jump in the scale and breadth of the social or civil economy, including financial services (remutualising the publicly owned banks), and ensuring that a reasonable proportion of investment funds (which generally means our pensions and insurance assets) are invested into the sector.

A third theme is the need to replenish democracy, opening up parliaments to public engagement through petitions and deliberation (as Scotland has done), making it a priority to support new generations of public leaders, and taking robust action to support pluralism in the media.

By international standards many of the UK's policies for civil society are exemplary. However, there are concerns about constraints on civil liberties - particularly restrictions on free assembly and about the rising tide of everyday regulation has seriously impeded community activity - from organising street parties to helping children.

But the big message is that as confidence in big government and big business declines, a new agenda is opening up for civil society that is about much more than full cost recovery and grants: it is at root about giving civil society a much stronger role right at the heart of the key centres of power, in the economy, the media and the state.




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